Archive | January, 2007

Thank You

Thanks to everyone for all the emails, voicemails and cards. I’ve been the lucky recipient of many offers of assistance and have not been organized enough to take advantage of them (or even respond to most of them yet), but know that I have received them all and am deeply appreciative.

Post-Fire: Update IV

Carlo is doing well since his update. He has gotten an additional pair of gloves to cover the gaps when the original pair is being washed and dried. That first pair is an un-chic tan and the new ones are black, so now he can attend formal parties without fear of appearing gauche.

Unfortunately, the follow-up appointment with the opthamologist did not include being tested for new glasses. His eyes are improving rapidly but they’re not ready to make a call on a prescription yet so he’ll have to wait another week.

R and I are back in San Francisco as of Sunday. Sorting here continues. I’m hoping to get back to regular blog posting next week.


I’ve been thinking about this for a few days and have decided to go ahead and set up an area of this site for people to post thoughts about Vivy. I’ve been writing a little offline about her and the farm – perhaps others have to or would like to put pen to paper (as it were) or take pleasure or comfort in reading what others might have to say. Please consider using this space to do that.

If you’d like to contribute something long or short, a memory, a memorium, or just a passing thought, please use the Comments link below this post. The site isn’t currently set up to post comments without first getting my approval (I get a lot of spam submissions), so hang tight and I’ll approve them and they’ll post to the site as soon as I get back to a connection. I know some of you have experienced some issues already when submitting comments – I’m sorry about that and I think we’ve fixed the issue now. It’s not pretty, but it works.

If the site won’t work for you or you’d rather send me a note via email and have me post it for you, feel free to do that as well.

Post-Fire: Update III

A quick update on issues medical:

Carl is now being treated on an outpatient basis in Buffalo and is doing well. On Wednesday, the burn clinic there removed the bandages on his hands and only rewrapped the palms and backs of the hands, leaving his fingers free. This obviously allows him much greater freedom but also exposes new skin to the air, so it’s going to take some adjustment. He’s played the piano a few times too and is getting to the point where he’s actual playing and not just banging. Excellent news for everyone.

They’ve fitted him for some tight-fitting gloves, an expected step in the burn healing process, and those are scheduled to arrive this evening. They should help protect the hands and be considerably less bulky than the remaining bandages.

The rest of Carl’s stitches – hands, feet, leg – came out in that same appointment on Wednesday. This was 3-7 days sooner than expected, so overall a good thing, but still somewhat nauseating. If any of you have had deep stitches taken out, you know what I’m talking about – it’s a bizarre feeling. Aside from that, there have been no bad effects and we still have full confidence in the doctors’ choices.

Carl’s eye appointment is early Friday, so we’ll see what that yields. His vision is still foggy enough that it’s hard to read, so he’s concerned, but by all accounts corneas are slow to heal, so even normal recovery may take a while. The ophthalmologists in Pittsburgh did not seem worried about long-term damage, so until we get this next opinion, I’m going with that.

Post-Fire: Update II

Progress has been rapid since Carl got to Buffalo four days ago. The hydrotherapy is progressing well and his hands are gaining flexibility rapidly. We’re optimistic that the remaining stitches will come out at the end of the week and that he’ll gain access to a piano today or tomorrow to continue that part of physical therapy. As the hands pick up speed, his eyes are the primary focus of concern. While the prognosis has been positive, his vision continues to be blurry. My Bill Frist theory is that his eyes are trying to compensate for each other as they struggle to heal. This is based on no concrete knowledge whatsoever and only a vague memory of an article I read somewhere several years ago, so take it for what it’s worth (which is likely next to nothing).

He has a packed schedule of doctor’s appointments but is able to stay at the house which is a huge improvement for all of us, especially for him, as they’ve installed our stepbrother’s flatscreen TV and a separate cable box in his room. I don’t even have that.

My stepmother’s mother (stepgrandmother?) was a nurse for ages, so the family has strong connections in the medical community in Buffalo. They’ve gotten Carl in to see a prominent opthamologist who my father described as, “the opthamologist for some president – not this one – or something…” The president of Buffalo maybe. Carl will see him on Friday. (The opthamologist, not the president.)

Post-Fire: Update

To get to the best news first, Carl’s been steadily improving over the last few days and will be released this afternoon to go to Buffalo and work with the burn center there, closer to our father’s home.

In more specific news, on Tuesday he came off the oxygen and blood pressure monitors and, after some concerns about possible infection, his temperature finally stabilized yesterday. The risk of infection in burn patients with open wounds is very high and can immeasurably complicate and extend the healing process, so it’s excellent that he’s avoided any so far.

Also on Tuesday, they removed the several sets of stitches from his forehead and the scars are clearing up. He has a long set of stitches up one ankle and calf, some in his feet and many in his hands which will remain in for at least another week. His nose was almost torn off as he went through a window: that line of stitches has left a pirate-like scar running across his nose, but they are optimistic that it too will heal to near invisibility. Alternatively, Carl will do well in biker bars.

His vision remains blurry, more so on the left than the right. His corneas were burned, so they’ve been keeping the pupils constricted and the eyes soothed with ointment and drops to facilitate healing. His left side was exposed to the flames more directly so that side will take longer to heal but they expect a complete recovery.

His lungs are almost clear – he still coughs some and that’s normal, but they believe he did not sustain irreversible lung damage from the smoke.

The burns on his face, head and neck are healing gradually and should leave very little, if any, scarring. The skin on his face now looks like a very pink version of normal.

His hands sustained by far the worst of the damage. Breaking through super-heated glass twice (a door and then a plate-glass window) left him with severe burns and some very bad gashes. At admittance to the burn unit, they classified them as extreme second degree burns. The right hand is particularly bad with a couple of long and painful sets of stitches in addition to near-total burn coverage. For the first several days, the burn/trauma team was on the fence about reclassifying them as third-degree burns and therefore in need of skin grafts, which would have required a much longer hospital stay. On New Year’s Day, they decided to keep him at Mercy for the week and see if, with aggressive pursuit of burn therapy, they could pre-empt that. After a few more days of work and a considerable amount of pain for Carl, they were ready to call it a success and he’s officially out of the woods on the graft front. His hands will heal on their own.

Carl is going through two particularly painful daily therapies. The first is hydrotherapy, a process in which they remove the bandages on his hands and scrub free all the previous day’s medications and any dead tissue on the burned areas. This prevents infection and scarring, a critical concern, particularly on the hands, which must remain scar-tissue-free in order to maintain mobility, especially for playing the piano. The hands’ health is determined by the presence of nerves, which – good news – he has. The down side is that, as there is very little skin to protect these endings, the scrubbing requires considerable pain medication and endurance on the patient’s part. It took almost a week to sort out what meds he needed and when he needed to take them for maximum effectiveness – it’s been an exhausting and complicated process but Carl’s borne up very well under it as we pressed for consistency, new meds, different meds, different intervals and on and on and on.

The second process is physical therapy which is also designed to limit the build up of any scar tissue or banding on his hand joints, his palms or between his fingers. This is also a very painful undertaking, as it involves manipulating burned and stitched skin, but he’s not only kept at it with the therapists but is constantly scrunching his bandaged hands between sessions. He’s even whaled on a piano a few times, a recommended dexterity exercise. The staff is very pleased with his progress and tenacity.

A note on Mercy hospital might be in order here: the burn unit is excellent and the staff both responsive and good-humored. The nuns (it’s a Catholic hospital) converted the top floor of the hospital into a small, spartan inn for relatives of patients – it used to be the psych ward, which seems appropriate. Our father, his wife, R and I have been staying there for a week and a half on and off and are very grateful for it. They have a kitchen, laundry, an attentive staff and Carl is three floors down so we have been able to keep tabs on him and his care eighteen hours a day.

We could not be more delighted that Carlo is doing so well. I was not able to get back from Europe and to Pittsburgh until some thirty-six hours after the fire and when we saw him, he was in the burn ICU, swollen and barely whispering. The progress he’s made in ten days is extraordinary. He has a long way to go to regain full function in his hands, but his treatment from here will be on an outpatient basis in Buffalo. His long-term recovery is certain but the duration is still an open question: the doctors have said anywhere from five weeks to six months. It’s both understandable and frustrating that they can’t pin it down more specifically.

On a much sadder note, some of you have asked about memorial services for Vivy. They are being planned for both Mt. Jewett and Philadelphia (where much of the Carlson family lives) – I will send those dates as they are set. Losing her is a source of immeasurable grief for the family. The additional loss of the farm and the family’s history in that house is difficult. I know I speak for the family as a whole when I say that we appreciate your thoughts and prayers.

“Another Last Chance to Change Your Life”

Another Last Chance to Change Your Life
By Pascal Bruckner

Published: January 1, 2007
New York Times

In one of his last books, Romain Gary tells how, as a lover at 59 of a Russian woman of 20, he decided to end the relationship because of the age difference. But, deeply in love, he hesitated. In the cafe where he went to write a letter breaking off the liaison, the server asked him what he wanted. “Je prendrai une décision,” he said, I will have a decision. As the server, philosophically, waited for him to place his proper order, he corrected himself. “Je prendrai une infusion,” I will have an herbal tea.

The practice of making New Year’s resolutions is growing rare in France, perhaps because we spread them out from January to December, a demonstration of a delicate balance between good will and willpower. Descendants of the spiritual exercises of the ancients, resolutions are both educational and therapeutic.

In declaring resolutions, if possible before witnesses, we nourish the illusion that changing our lifestyles will change our lives: “This year, I will read Proust.” “This year, I will not invade Iraq.” “This year, I will be faithful to my wife.” “This year, I will reduce unemployment in France.” Or, more prosaically, “I will exercise three times a week, I will finally try to stop smoking, I will cut back on sugar,” etc. It’s a sort of collective drunkenness for people to make vows that nobody expects to keep.

Westerners are athletes of introspection — we never stop analyzing ourselves. “It is never too late or too early to care for the well-being of the soul,” Epicurus said, and so we make our lives a study of ourselves. We need a moment in the year when we look at ourselves, weigh our good and bad habits, evaluate our conduct as a doctor evaluates our health during an annual examination, so we can strive for a way of life that is wiser and more responsible.

There are two types of resolutions: those that are reasonable, and those that are not. The day I took communion, when I was an adolescent and still believed in God, I would decide to be good to everyone, to smile at my family, to spread charity and goodwill. This love for my neighbors, even the ones who annoyed me, lasted two days, and then I returned to being an ordinary human, neither good nor bad, with my moods and my preferences. I could not make myself someone I was not.

Similarly, to declare that in 2007 we resolve to be happy is unreasonable. We can’t determine to be happy: it is in our power to avoid certain evils, to stay away from conflict, to not bankrupt ourselves, to not throw ourselves out the window or under a train, but we can’t order up happiness as we order a dish in a restaurant or command a dog to come at our call. Happiness eludes the rendezvous we fix, arrives when we least expect it, disappears when we think we have it in hand.

In other words, those people who are unhappy about not being happy forget that happiness has a knack for indirection, coming in the middle of the most ordinary day or disappearing at the height of one’s career. It is a matter of luck, almost of grace, a visitor who enters the house unexpectedly and vanishes on tiptoe. “I recognize happiness by the sound it makes when it leaves,” said the poet Jacques Prévert.

In contrast, let’s imagine someone who sets out on Dec. 31 to ruin his life. It’s not certain that ruin will arrive easily: it is no less difficult to destroy one’s life than to improve it. Catastrophe is a delicate art that also requires chance. Hell is just as hard to get into as heaven.

If the end of the year brings a flood of resolutions to change, it is because we are faced with an existence that is invaded by the routine, by the rush of demands. We can’t bear it. We know that another life exists, more beautiful, more passionate, one that laziness and apathy keeps us from attaining.

I have to break with time to overcome my obstacles, to rediscover myself, to be myself in all innocence. I can change my life, at least in some small way. Making resolutions demonstrates optimism, the desire to make oneself better, a faith, naïve and beautiful at once, that declarations can spontaneously become actions, that saying means doing.

Oh, the glorious day of making a resolution, the belief that starting tomorrow I will be the pilot of my existence, that I will stop being the plaything of external circumstances, that I will govern myself. I’m better than I seem to be — a person obsessed by little irritants, addicted to talking nonsense — and I’m going to prove it to the world. The certainty that soon, thanks to my willpower, I will no longer be someone who is habitually late, a slave to my cellphone, a glutton, a distracted driver… that can galvanize me, prompt me to change, tear away my imperfect personality. Real life starts now; I can immediately free myself of my neuroses, correct myself. I can rid myself of the fear of failure and of the specter of the failures of the past.

Knowing that you can change your behavior, even by an iota, is essential for holding yourself in esteem. We’re often cynical about how resolutions are never kept, but we shouldn’t be. Resolutions are perhaps lies, but they’re lies of good faith, necessary illusions. As long as we can make them, we are saved, we can control the chaos of destiny; it doesn’t matter that we break them and that others view us with skepticism. Every resolution is good simply because it is declared. It is a comedy, perhaps, but it keeps us sane.

Pascal Bruckner is the author of “The Temptation of Innocence: Living in the Age of Entitlement.” This article was translated by The Times from the French.


I woke up yesterday morning with these words in my head: “It could have ended differently, I suppose. But it didn’t.”

It’s the voice of the narrator in Mansfield Park at the very end of the film, pausing over a happy tableaux of the characters arranged on the lawn of the manor.

My grandmother’s home was like that, only less British. Sprawling and American, it looked out over its orchard and gardens and pool and lawns and the forest in the distance.

It could have ended differently, I suppose. But it didn’t.


black.jpgHello. Thanks for hanging in there during this prolonged silence. I’ve been meaning to post but have had limited internet access and have yet to figure out how to tell people what happened. Below is an excerpt from an email that conveys the basics.

“We got a terrible phone call last week and had to make an emergency flight back from Zurich: my family’s farm near the New York border burned on Christmas night, and my 94-year old grandmother perished in the fire. My brother Carl was staying with her for the holiday and tried to get her out of the house twice, but was ultimately unable to pull her to safety. He was badly burned and cut in the blaze and was brought to the Trauma and Burn Center at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. They are, I think, one of the top burn centers in the country, which is good. His injuries are no longer life-threatening but burn treatment is difficult and exhausting. My father, stepmother, R and I are here with him on rotating shifts eighteen hours a day to handle care, therapy and all the medications. They have a small residential area on on the top floor of the hospital for family members, so we’re staying there for now. We are hoping that he will move closer to my father’s home in Buffalo by next week, but it is still touch and go. I will know more in a few days.”